‘Delete this form and never use again.’ DSS agencies remove kids without judge’s order.

WBTV Investigates: Cleveland, Gaston counties use forms to transfer ‘temporary’ custody of their children
Published: Mar. 7, 2022 at 8:40 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 8, 2022 at 11:26 AM EST
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SHELBY, N.C. (WBTV) – In North Carolina, a social worker has to go to court and get a judge’s order to remove a child from their parents’ home.

Even in an emergency, the law says, a social worker can remove a child from their home but still must get a court order to keep them out of the house within 12 to 24 hours.

But a WBTV investigation has found social workers with the department of social services in two local counties removing children from their homes without a court order.

The director of Cleveland County DSS reported the practice of her agency to regulators with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services last summer.

And, records show, N.C. DHHS workers discovered a similar practice in Gaston County as they investigated in Cleveland County.

Workers with N.C. DHHS stopped the practice in Cleveland County, records show.

Documents: Read the documents obtained by WBTV from N.C. DHHS

The county DSS director has refused to answer questions from WBTV on camera.

But a spokesman for Gaston County DSS says their use of a form to remove children from their parents’ home without a court order was approved by the state.

Nobody from Gaston County nor N.C. DHHS would answer questions on camera for this story.

Officials’ refusal to answer questions only adds to the secrecy of a system often referred to by experts as the “hidden foster care system.” Because of the secrecy, it is nearly impossible to identify families impacted by this practice.

Only one other county has been known to remove children from their parents’ homes without a judge’s order. The practice was uncovered in Cherokee County in 2017.

The fallout in Cherokee County is still unfolding but has already resulted in criminal charges against multiple DSS officials and a multi-million dollar civil lawsuit verdict that the county is now scrambling to find a way to pay, according to reporting from Carolina Public Press.

Illegal forms lead to questions about staff competency, other problems

Records obtained by WBTV show the Cleveland County DSS Director, Katie Swanson, learned of her agency’s use of a form to take children from their parents’ homes without a judge’s order in May 2021.

Social workers there used a document labeled as a ‘temporary guardianship’ form.

The form includes blanks for parents to fill in their names and the names of other adults that they agree to look after their children. It must be witnessed and signed by a notary.

By signing the form, parents are essentially waiving their custody rights over their children.

“What you see revealed here is a blatant violation of children’s rights,” said Richard Wexler, who runs the National Coalition for Child Protection Reform.

Wexler reviewed more than 100 pages of records obtained by WBTV documenting the use of temporary guardianship forms in Cleveland and Gaston counties.

“With this process, a caseworker becomes judge, jury and, often, family executioner,” Wexler said. “No one person should have all that unchecked power over children’s lives. It inevitably leads to tragic mistakes.”

The records show Swanson reported her agency’s use of the temporary guardianship forms to N.C. DHHS in late June, roughly a month after first learning about them.

On the day Swanson reported her agency’s use of the form, a supervisor sent an email to another worker asking for a copy of the form. After receiving the form, the supervisor instructed the worker to destroy the document.

“After sending to me please delete this form and never use again,” the supervisor said.

In response, N.C. DHHS placed Cleveland County on a corrective action plan.

“The ‘Temporary Guardianship’ document is not within the scope of a County Department of Social Services’ duties and responsibilities,” the N.C. DHHS letter said.

“This ‘Temporary Guardianship’ document purports to transfer custody of a child without the oversight of the courts.”

As part of its corrective action plan, Cleveland County had to review two years of case files to identify all instances where the form was used.

It is not clear why state regulators only mandated a two-year lookback, since records obtained by WBTV show staff found at least once case from 2018 before reporting the issue to N.C. DHHS.

Ultimately, records show, staff found 11 cases where a temporary guardianship form was used in Cleveland County.

As staff investigated the use of the temporary guardianship forms in Cleveland County, records show, they found more problems.

A letter sent from N.C. DHHS to the county last August outlined the list of other problems found within the child protective services division of Cleveland County DSS.

Among the issues outlined in the August letter were:

-”Concern about competency and capacity of current child welfare staff at all levels (Social Worker, Social Work Supervisor, Program Manager, Program Administrator) to provide appropriate services to assure safety of children in child welfare.

-”Identified issues with intake reports being screened out that should have been screened in for assessment.”

-”Issues with lack of appropriate safety planning to assure safety in open assessment cases both at initiation and ongoing.”

-”Concern about follow up action on directives and low sense of urgency on specified tasks.”

-Significant staffing shortages due to vacancies, FMLA and other issues, specifically in Assessments, that is contributing to concerns regarding safety of children.”

-”Concern about legal process and impact to child welfare staff in seeking appropriate safety response via court involvement.”

As a result of the additional problems uncovered within Cleveland County DSS, the state required the agency to contract outside staff to help manage cases and implement a long list of corrective action.

Effectively, the documents show, N.C. DHHS staff and outside contractors took over daily operations and decision making for Cleveland County DSS’s Child Protective Services.

A demotion, a pay raise

At the time N.C. DHHS found problems with Cleveland County’s Child Protective Services, it was led by Gregory Grier.

Records provided by Cleveland County in response to a request from WBTV for his personnel information show Grier was demoted from his position running CPS on August 16, days after the letter from N.C. DHHS.

Although Grier was demoted to a lesser position, he maintained his $79,664 pay.

Records show Grier worked in Cleveland County through December, when he left the agency.

He was hired by Gaston County DSS days later as a special projects manager.

Personnel information provided by Gaston County show Grier’s new job came with a pay raise: he now makes $95,871.36.

A Gaston County spokesman defended the agency’s hiring of Grier.

“Gaston County conducted background and reference checks during the hiring process per our standard practice,” the spokesman said of the process involved to hire Grier. “In his short time in Gaston County’s Department of Social Services as Special Projects Manager, he has already had an immediate and positive impact.”

‘Way bigger than just Cleveland’

As N.C. DHHS workers continued to monitor Cleveland County DSS, they found signs for concern in Gaston County, too.

Emails from a N.C. DHHS supervisor show Gaston County DSS had a practice of removing children from their parents’ homes without a judge’s order that was similar to what was being carried out in Cleveland County.

Tammy Shook, a program manager for the N.C. DHHS Division of Social Services wrote to her colleagues about what she found in an email on July 16.

“Also, while staffing one of their cases, they had found a similar type situation (Temp Gship) on a case they were working that involved Gaston County. So I think this Temporary Guardianship thing is way bigger than just Cleveland,” Shook wrote.

Documents: Read the emails from Tammy Shook

Shook’s colleague wrote back to say she was not familiar with what Gaston County DSS was doing.

“Yes this was definitely a situation where Gaston closed a case with a child placed with someone who had a temp care agreement and still safety issues if child returned to mom,” Shook wrote.

“So regardless of what they call the piece of paper signed…..it’s the same situation. Does that make sense?”

A spokesman for Gaston County provided a form that allows for either a “temporary safety provider” or a “kinship care provider.”

The form contemplates a parent being able to place their child with a friend or family member voluntarily.

The Gaston County spokesman provided a second form that a parent signed to allow the guardian to make medical and school decisions for the children.

An email from Shook to her supervisor sent in August suggests Gaston County was using the second form to close cases after children had been removed from their parents using a temporary safety provider and not being returned.

“My issue isn’t necessarily the ‘form’ but if it is used to close a case with children in TSP that is where the issue lies,” Shook wrote.

Attorney Anastasia Cowan, who handles DSS cases throughout the Charlotte region, said the use of the second form with the temporary safety provider form gave her cause for concern.

“What I saw is, basically, a power of attorney,” she said.

“There’s not a judge on there, it’s just, I hereby authorize so and so to get medical attention for my kid,” she said. “There’s no date on it, there’s no end date, there’s no nothing.”

Cowan said the DSS system is designed to operate without judicial oversight, so closing a case with a temporary safety placement by having a parent sign over the decision-making rights over their child without going through a judge contradicts the intent of the system.

“The problem is there is absolutely no oversight to that,” she said.

“Because of that lack of oversight, these are people’s constitutional rights to raise and grow their children and that’s being denied by the state.”

Denial, refusal to answer questions

Despite the concern from Shook, the N.C. DHHS supervisor, expressing clear concern at Gaston County DSS’s practice, officials at N.C. DHHS have, for weeks, sought to downplay the issue.

Robin Deacle, a spokeswoman for N.C. DHHS, said agency staff reviewed the forms questioned in Shook’s email.

“The on-site review confirmed that what was conveyed to NCDSS staff as possibly being a ‘temporary guardianship’ form, was not. It was a medical and educational services form, which is not related to guardianship or custody at all,” Deacle said.

“To reiterate, the document (which you were provided through your attorney on February 28), was to assure that a temporary safety provider could acquire medical and educational services if needed while providing temporary care for a child.”

Deacle’s claim that there is no form to temporarily transfer custody of a child from their parents without a judge’s order was contradicted days later when the Gaston County spokesman provided the form.

N.C. DHHS continues in its refusal--through its lawyer at the Attorney General’s Office--to comply with a public records request from WBTV and produce the form used in Gaston County.

WBTV repeatedly asked to schedule an on-camera interview with someone at N.C. DHHS for this story and was repeatedly denied.

A crew tried to ask questions of N.C. DHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley one morning in Asheville before he spoke at a public board meeting.

Among the things we wanted to know was why his office was claiming Gaston County did not use a form to remove children from their parents’ homes without a judge’s order and why N.C. DHHS claimed the form Shook raised questions about in her emails in July and August was unrelated to the temporary custody form.

“I don’t have time, I’m going to this,” Kinsley said when approached outside of the event.

“I’m happy to look into this and follow up,” he said.

Following WBTV’s efforts to talk with Kinsley in Asheville, Deacle, his spokeswoman, denied a renewed request for an on-camera interview.

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